Thursday, September 23, 2010

Believe The Hype: The Dark Knight Delivers The Film We've Been Waiting For!

The Good: Plot, Character, Action, Pacing, Special Effects, Soundtrack, Acting
The Bad: None that I could find!
The Basics: Intense and dark, The Dark Knight creates a violent, action-packed cinematic experience that reminds the viewer how great superhero films can be!

[Note: I originally wrote this review from a screening in advance of the main theatrical release of The Dark Knight and as I read over it to transfer it to my new blog, I found I liked some of the general statements on the film and its context as a summer blockbuster. I've decided to keep the review in that tone and I hope you enjoy that aspect of it. If you haven't seen the film, this review ought to get you psyched about seeing it. If you have, hopefully you'll remember why you fell in love with it!]

Superhero movies are the reason we have Summer Blockbuster Season. For the summer, we want big, bold and something that is enough to drive us to the theater (other than the air conditioning) to get excited about. For those who do not follow my reviews, I have found almost nothing but disappointment this summer with the films I have seen in theaters. There have been the worthwhile movies (Iron Man, Get Smart), the average (Wanted, Hancock) and the crippling disappointments (Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, The Love Guru). Everyone I have talked to - and in my reviews - has gotten an earful about how much hope I was placing on The Dark Knight, the latest installment in the revitalized Batman movie series.

For me, Batman Returns was the pinnacle of the Batman films. It provided adversaries for Batman, Bruce Wayne and one who was so nebulous as to be ally and enemy to both. It was clever, funny, sexy and appropriately violent, the perfect film. Seeing The Dark Knight reminded me just how I fell in love with the vigilante superhero whose only true power is knowledge and an arsenal of gadgets used to apply that knowledge.

The Dark Knight delivers everything one could expect from the movie, reminding the viewer that summer blockbuster is not synonymous with droll and that there is nothing antithetical in making a quality film and making a profit.

As Bruce Wayne struggles with being alone as his girlfriend Rachel Dawes develops a deeper and deeper relationship with District Attorney Harvey Dent, he finds great success working with Gordon as Batman, cleaning up the streets of Gotham City. Batman, Gordon and Dent manage to bring some order and justice to Gotham. As crime bosses fall, though, a psychopath steps in to take their place and up the ante. Robbing banks, the Joker steals from the mob and while Batman returns the brains behind the mob's banking to Gotham jurisdiction, the Joker escalates his assaults on law enforcement.

Soon, Batman is struggling to anticipate the next move of a criminal who is bombing, killing and terrorizing Gotham with little regard to anything other than creating chaos and thwarting the Batman. The determination needed to stop the Joker pushes Wayne and Dawes further apart and Bruce Wayne struggles to maintain his alliance with Dent. Relying on Alfred and Lucius Fox, Batman soon finds himself surrounded by enemies and challenged past the limits of his principles.

The Dark Knight picks up where Batman Begins left off, though it is in no way imperative to see that film in order to get everything out of The Dark Knight. This film does a remarkable job of setting itself up so the viewer is placed in the world of Gotham City perfectly, even if this is the viewer's first trip there. The Batman character is essentially the ultimate vigilante, funded beyond any the world has yet seen.

Classically, Batman is a man who struggles to reconcile the two halves of his personality; by day he is billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, by night he is the crime-fighting detective Batman who utilizes extraordinary gadgets to thwart the villains of Gotham City. Batman has never just been about the gimmicks of gadgetry, though. Batman is smart, determined and dangerously intense. In The Dark Knight, the viewer is treated to all of that as he matches wits with the violently random Joker and the intellectual match Harvey Dent. This is a case where clever does not cut it and the introspection of the character leads him to some disturbing conclusions.

Just as Batman Begins was preoccupied with the nature of fear, The Dark Knight is concerned with the very essence of good and evil, power and control. The fundamental question asked in The Dark Knight is what price is peace worth; what sacrifices should be made to keep the majority free. The film is also smart enough to ask, what is the price of freedom and what level of compassion and freedom must we as a society have for the mentally ill. Arguably, the reason the Joker is such a great villain for Batman is because they represent the extremes of chaos and order. In The Dark Knight, the foil nature is wonderfully played out and the addition of Dent as something of an ego between the Id (Joker) and Superego (Batman) makes for a compelling character study . . . filled with a lot of action, violence and explosions.

This is not to say The Dark Knight is in any way droll, sacrificing substance for style. Far from it. The violent nature of the Joker is perfectly expressed through the summer movie special effects concept. Moreover, the level of violence that Batman must respond with becomes both visually spectacular and resonates on a character level. Director and co-writer Christopher Nolan - who is now wowing audiences with Inception - is smart enough to balance the violence and intensity of the Joker conflict with the romantic triangle involving Dawes and Dent, which allows Wayne to express his intensity as well.

The Dark Knight reunites several of the performers who reinvented the wheel of the Batman franchise back with Batman Begins. Distinguished actors Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, and Gary Oldman reprise their roles from the first reboot and they play them with a seriousness befitting the parts. Maggie Gyllenhaal takes over the role of Rachel Dawes and she does a fine job stepping into the part.

There are, however, three standouts on the acting front. Those performers are the leading men of The Dark Knight, Aaron Eckhart, Heath Ledger, and Christian Bale. Aaron Eckhart plays Harvey Dent, a principled District Attorney who is dating Rachel Dawes, ex-girlfriend of Bruce Wayne. I fell in love with the work of Eckhart when he took the lead in the satire Thank You For Smoking and I have been waiting to see him in something that challenged him even more since. Playing Dent does just that. In The Dark Knight Eckhart is challenged with playing a character who must transform and be believable after the transformation. Unlike the Joker, who is a flat-out psychopath, Harvey Dent - and ultimately Two Face - is a man with a strong moral core. Eckhart plays him that way, but keeps a tension - a look held long here, a slight catch in his enunciation there - that insinuates that what he becomes was within the character all along. This is immaculate acting because it requires Eckhart to play Dent like a poker player who could bluff, fold or go all the way to win with an amazing hand and no one knows quite which way he will fall. Eckhart masters the subtle in The Dark Knight and it is his body language and presentation early in the film that sets up perfectly the transformations of his character.

It surprised me some that the only film of Heath Ledger's that I had seen before now was The Brothers Grimm, but after seeing The Dark Knight, it is easy to see why there is so much buzz about his performance here. In The Brothers Grimm, he played a scholarly, nerdy scientist and he was convincing. In The Dark Knight, there is none of that. From his first appearances on screen, he is menacing, over-the-top and a very true and dark representation of a mentally ill psychotic. His performance is edgy and there is not a moment that the viewer does not feel the Joker is an absolute menace because of Ledger's twitchy acting. Moreover, there is not the hint in his performance of any prior actor's interpretation of the Joker, making this a truly astonishing and unique take on the villain.

With all of the praise heaped on the late Heath Ledger, it is not surprising that Christian Bale is often neglected by reviewers for the quality of his performance. Bale and director Christopher Nolan have a great rapport that comes across in his performance and Bale manages to be pushed by Nolan even further than he was in The Prestige. Bale is not simply moody or tormented or smirking through his performance in The Dark Knight. He has to oscillate between dignified and truly dangerous while making the viewer believe that there are ethical lines his character will not cross. Bale is engaging and walks that acting tightrope perfectly, reinforcing the lines of principle with a posture that speaks the volumes needed when the lines end. He shines and the film works because this triumvirate of actors plays off one another expertly.

Unlike Batman Begins which had some pacing issues ("some" should read as some grammatical corrected version of "damn, that took forever!"), The Dark Knight gets right where it is going with haste, leaving enough time to develop the characters instead of just the plot. The score is almost as memorable as Danny Elfman's and the visuals are spectacular. This is an action-filled super-hero film that will outlast the summer niche. It reminds us why the genre exists at all and how provocative it truly can be.

On DVD, The Dark Knight is packed with extras, especially in the very special two-disc "Special Edition." This contains the IMAX scenes the way they were meant to be seen (and having seen the film in IMAX and on DVD, these truly are incredible, especially on an HD-TV!). As well, there is an enjoyable collection of "Gotham Tonight" features, a special effects scene documentary, and a whole slew of production stills. Interestingly, there are no deleted scenes nor an audio commentary track. Still, it is hard not to get excited about owning this one!

Sadly, there were no major Oscars for the movie, but there should have been.

For other superhero action films, please check out my reviews of:
Iron Man 2


For other movie reviews, please check out my index page!

© 2010, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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